By Shelly Reuben
CHAPTER 4  SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life

Chapter 4

Alonso and Pepita became a couple. She frequently came to the park to watch him prune shrubbery and plant bulbs, and the two of them would wander hand-in-hand up and down the park paths after he had finished the day’s work. Since they so often sat together on one of my branches, I was able to observe the evolution of their love affair.

There is no question that both of them changed. The landscaper less noticeably, since a cucumber nose is a cucumber nose. But he intoned the arias from his favorite operas in a louder and more vigorous voice, and occasionally he even switched from tragic opera to lighthearted operetta, bellowing songs with lyrics like “a paradise of kisses” and “forever in your arms.”

Alonso had a deeply sonorous voice that must have appealed to the ear of a highly trained musician, for I soon learned that Pepita was second violinist in the City Symphony Orchestra, and that she loved music in much the same way that Alonso Hannah loved the Samuel Swerling Park.

Funny, isn’t it, how love can expand the horizons of our hearts?

Long after Alsono met Pepita, I saw another instance of the same thing.

Sam Swerling was still alive then and very much involved with his family. Every Saturday morning, he would bring his nine-year-old granddaughter, Esther, to the park. Esther was a serious-looking child with large violet-blue eyes and a mouth that, when not moving, seemed less inclined to smile than to pout. Looks, however, can be deceiving, as she was actually friendly, happy, and quick to laugh. During their trips to the park, Esther would sit with her legs crossed Indian-style upon my lowest branch, Mr. Swerling would lean up against that same branch, and they often played a little game he made up called “What are they saying now?”

It wasn’t a game in the sense that anyone won or lost, but it did demand input from both participants, and it required a certain ingenuity.

Where she was perched on my branch, Esther and her grandfather had a panoramic view of the park. They could see the bridge, the pathways, most of the flowerbeds, and most of the trees. We climbing trees are not clustered together like stalks of celery, but were artfully planted here and there throughout the park, within talking distance if we want to talk, but with enough space

between the tips of our branches so that our knuckles – if we had knuckles – would not knock into each other on a windy day

This is how Mr. Swerling’s “What are they saying now?” game worked.

Esther studied the men, women, and children in the park until she found one sufficiently odd, appealing, or interesting.

She pointed to that person and exclaimed, “Him!” or “Her!”

Then it was the old gentleman’s job to put words into that person’s mouth for the sole purpose of amusing his nine-year-old grandchild.

Here are some examples:

Esther pointed at a sloppily dressed man in mechanics overalls whose tool belt was clenched too tightly over a bulging belly. He had a scowling red face, pudgy cheeks, small angry eyes, and a narrow unpleasant mouth. He had stomped into the park, not to enjoy the trees and flowers, but because traversing it diagonally would save a five-minute walk.

“What is he saying now?” Esther asked.

Mr. Swerling, taking on the persona of the red-faced man, muttered, “Who does she think she is, telling me I have to pick up her stupid mother at the bus station? She’s got a brother and two sisters, dumb as doorknobs, but they live closer than we do. Do any of them lift a finger to help the old witch out? No. Of course not. Those lazy bums sit on their fat backsides while I….”

Another time, Esther saw an impeccably groomed gentleman with silver hair, an intelligent, masculine face, and a purposeful stride. She pointed him out to her grandfather, who commented with a tinge of admiration, “Mr. Corporate America.” Then he smiled wryly and added, as if to himself, “Now, he’s the man that your grandmother should have married.”

Esther said, “What?”

But Sam shrugged off the question.

Having heard, though, what her grandfather called him, Esther demanded, “So what is Mr. Corporate America saying?”

Sam straightened his shoulders, deepened his voice, and with the hint of a British accent, intoned, “Municipal bonds. Excellent offering. I’ll call my broker and tell him to buy New York City. The Empire State Building is looking a little shabby, so I’ll buy that, too, polish the whole thing up, and add a few floors. I’ll buy Scotland. And Italy. Italy could do with a new airport. I’ll drain Lake Como, have it paved over, then…”

CHAPTER 4  SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life

And so on.

Mr. Swerling would finish his scenario, Esther would applaud happily, scan the park for another subject, and exclaim, “Her!”

This time it was a pretty girl sitting on the grass and staring wistfully at a small, leather bound book of poetry.

Sam cleared his throat, assumed the voice of a breathless sixteen-year-old female, and gushed, “Oh. Can Josh possibly have meant it when he said that I was pretty? For the longest time, I’ve hoped and prayed that he would notice me. Finally, this morning, when he recited my all-time favorite poem in English class, I thought ….”

They could play the game for hours.

I don’t think there was any malice in Mr. Swerling’s characterizations. I believe that his primary motive was to amuse Esther. In doing so, I also believe that their time spent together did much to turn his grown-up granddaughter into the observant human being and excellent judge of character that she eventually became.

It was during the first summer they played the game that they encountered a boy who would later play a significant part in all our lives. His name, although we didn’t learn it until the incident with the cockatiel three months later, was Jarvis Larchmont.

At first glance, Jarvis seemed normal enough for a twelve-year-old, even if he was paler and more bloodless looking than most. He had a long and narrow face, white skin with a bluish tint, and light blond hair. His long bangs hid the top of an almost invisible pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, through which glared small, elliptical eyes with green irises as pale as the wings of a Luna moth.

CHAPTER 4  SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life

It was Jarvis’ mouth, though, that was the real character study. It wasn’t a boy’s mouth at all, and when he grew up, it would not be a man’s mouth. It was a sarcastic mouth, derisive and superior, behind which impending tantrums lurked.

Still playing their game, Esther raised her hand and was about to point to Jarvis as their next subject, but something the boy did quickly changed their minds.

A family of three – mother, father, and a five-years-old girl – were walking along the pathway slowly enough for the parents to pace their steps to those of their child. The little girl was cute, with pudgy arms and legs and a big smile on her face. She was wearing a frilly pink dress and clasping a large ice cream cone in her hands.

 

If I were an artist instead of a tree, then and there I would have painted a picture of that happy family and captioned it “Bliss.”

But before they had gone another step, the boy with the telltale mouth ran at them, rammed the child, and knocked the ice cream cone out of her hands.

Just as quickly, he changed the look of malice on his face into a look of angelic contrition and shouted, “Sorry!”

He spun around and continued to run, but this time out of the park.

Esther looked at her grandfather.

Sam Swerling looked at his granddaughter.

“He did that on purpose!” Esther exclaimed. Then they both watched in dismay as the little girl in the frilly pink dress stared down at her ice cream cone on the ground, and burst into tears.

 

CHAPTER 4  SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life

Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.